Here's Why Your Company Needs a Workplace Cannabis Policy

This article is brought to you by MNP.

As the cannabis legalization movement continues to make gains across North America, more and more businesses are faced with the difficult challenge of drafting a company-wide cannabis policy that keeps the workplace safe. While putting that sort of policy together can be complicated, it's important to invest the necessary time and effort into it sooner rather than later so that your business doesn't feel the sting of regret from a poorly managed change, according to Roderick Barrass, an expert in change management who works for MNP, one of the largest full-service chartered accountancy and business advisory firms in Canada.

Barrass says that in addition to recognizing how the laws around cannabis have changed, an effective cannabis policy addresses societal attitudes toward the substance.

"There's more to it than just what's changed following legalization," he told Civilized. "It's how people adapt to shifting societal values that they have - sometimes generational values - around cannabis, its effects and what it means about you if you consume it."

Here are some tips he shared for tackling that challenge. 

Be careful when mixing alcohol and cannabis policies

Often, the first step in the process of crafting an effective cannabis policy is to convince companies that they need to establish a separate understanding for marijuana. And, in fact, it should more broadly encompass other substances that can cause impairment at work. Many businesses just focus on alcohol and cannabis and want to make it easy by combining the two, which might sound like a quick and effective fix in theory, but it isn’t a sure-fire solution.

"A common refrain has been to treat cannabis like alcohol and combine it with their alcohol policy, meaning just as you're not supposed to be impaired at work—whether that is drunk or high," Barrass said. "The challenge is that the two substances are metabolised differently in the body. Also, it is common for people to consume alcohol in small amounts at work functions to the extent that they are not seen as impaired. The question then is, what is acceptable for cannabis consumption?”

One example of that involves special events. 

"If you're having a holiday party it's typical to serve alcohol," Barrass noted. "But does that mean it's okay to consume cannabis at a holiday party? If so, would you as an employer provide the cannabis products? When edibles become legal in the fall, it is going to be much harder to manage and many companies just haven't had to deal with it yet."

Another example is the common practice of having a casual drink in the middle of the workday.

“If you are out at lunch and you saw a colleague at a restaurant, and they were having a beer, the question to ask is, how would you react to that versus if you were out at lunch and saw a colleague smoking a joint? Now, your answer will depend on the role of the employee. A sales business development person might need to entertain at lunch, while others need focus in the afternoon. But truthfully, for many, the answer to that is, many would judge the alcohol consumption completely different than the cannabis. If a company is thinking of treating cannabis like alcohol, the first thing they should do is actually broaden their view to think of all substances that impair. And then spend the time to communicate to staff (with examples) on how the policy will apply."

Be prepared

Right now, many companies are treating situations involving cannabis in the workplace on a case-by-case basis. That might be okay in the short term, but it can lead to problems in the long run if employees feel that their rights are being infringed upon.

One story shines a light on the gray areas for employers when they make it up as they go. 

“We did a presentation and a person there had a small construction company. Some of the people working for this employer were suspected of consuming cannabis, and the foreman called them out on it – they acknowledged the use, and then were suspended. The employer was saying that he realizes that while those people went along with the suspension, they could have easily pushed back. Without a policy, or an approach to monitoring, his realization was that once people get a better sense of the difficulties of confirming who is consuming or impaired, it will be harder to handle these situations.”

To avoid that unpleasant situation, it's best to devise a workplace policy before an infraction occurs.

Know the difference between medical and recreational

Developing a new policy will also help a company deal with the two sides of the cannabis industry.

"The issue of cannabis in the workplace is especially difficult since the plant is both a medication and a recreational drug," Barrass noted.

That means employers need to be ready to manage employees who are also taking cannabis for medical conditions. Employees should bear in mind that taking medical marijuana doesn't mean they're allowed to smoke a joint on the job. 

“Being prescribed medical marijuana is not a license to be impaired at work.”

Consider work culture 

To craft an effective cannabis policy, employers need to consider both the culture of the workplace as well as the values of their employees.

“The communication and rollout of these types of policy changes is super important," Barrass said. "For a lot of companies, it's difficult because the leaders of the company have a traditional mindset from the past—when cannabis was this big, bad, evil thing. And so the approach they have taken in their cannabis policy is very punitive and authoritarian.”

To avoid coming across that way, employers should clarify why cannabis policies are important and why the company is adopting one.

“To successfully roll out the new policy, you would have to communicate and explain what the purpose is and why the company is introducing them. What the company should do is reflect upon what their values are based on and look at cannabis from the perspective of how society's values are changing around it. If their workforce is of a younger generation, they really need to ask themselves, 'What's important for our workforce, and are we being limited in such an old school way that we're really disconnected with the generation that's coming up — and that's going to be our workers?'”

Crafting a policy that reflects the values of the workforce can be crucial to maintaining personnel.

"I think people will decide to work at different companies based on these types of policies," Barrass added.

Be ready to adapt

Once the policy is in place, companies shouldn't assume it will stay the same forever. Just like animals in the wilderness, the most successful workplace policies are the ones that can adapt to change.

"The advice that we'd give is, introduce a policy but be ready to adapt as you're learning as a company on what is appropriate," Barrass said. "Many people would just be like, 'I've updated this thing, I won’t look at it again for ten years.'"

Some policy changes occur in response to developments in cannabis regulations, while others reflect shifting attitudes toward cannabis in society.

"People's values and perceptions are changing," Barrass noted. "I mean, I think of my mother, who is 78 and who never would have done this before is now talking to me about getting cannabis cream for her arthritis when it becomes it legal. So one piece of advice is, be ready to adapt. As a company, you should keep track of how the policy is working as well as how your values and your employees’ values are shifting."

And if you already have a cannabis policy in place, get ready to change it by this fall.

"I think the big change will come when edibles become legalized," Barrass said. "That will be destabilizing. Most people aren't pushing back against that yet on cannabis products being served at work social functions, but in the next couple years, I would expect younger employees to start saying, 'Hey, wait a second. I don't like drinking, why isn't there anything for me at the office party?'"

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